Backlog of Colombian human rights cases pose a test for new president, the U.S.

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 26, 2010; 11:54 AM

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — The verdict this week was a milestone: A distant court affiliated with the Washington-based Organization of American States held the Colombian government responsible for the 1994 assassination of a prominent senator.

Lion of a radical political party whose members were slain by the hundreds, Manuel Cepeda was shot dead in an operation partly organized by Colombia’s army. The case is one of hundreds of murders and massacres, old and new, that have entered the inter-American justice system from Colombia, a nation suffering from a simmering, half-century-old guerrilla conflict.

As President Alvaro Uribe prepares to leave office in August after eight years in power, investigators at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a branch of the OAS, are grappling with many of these cases. The most recent have triggered a national and international firestorm over the army’s systematic killing of peasant farmers to inflate combat kills and revelations that Uribe’s secret police spied on opponents, foreign diplomats and rights groups.

“If you put all of this together, the extrajudicial executions, the espionage of human rights defenders, it’s all really a constant over the years,” Santiago Canton, an Argentine who has headed the rights commission for nine years, said by phone from Washington. “That’s very dangerous.”

The backlog of cases and what they say about Colombia’s history of rights violations pose a test for Uribe’s successor, Juan Manuel Santos, a former defense minister elected Sunday. Among his priorities is winning U.S. congressional approval of a free-trade pact, which would eliminate tariffs on Colombian exports. So far, the effort has stalled because of Democratic concerns about rights being violated with impunity here.

Colombia’s record is also a challenge for the Obama administration as it tries to forge closer ties to the rest of Latin America. The effort has been hamstrung by diplomatic imbroglios, including criticism from some governments of Uribe’s rights record and U.S. support for Colombia’s army.

“This is a problem for the United States,” said Myles Frechette, a former U.S. ambassador here.

Frechette said the Santos administration must also demonstrate a commitment to preventing abuses and ending impunity, which led countries across the hemisphere to create the rights commission in the first place. “He has to say, ‘Colombia is a modern country, and we understand all these things about human rights violations, and we’re going to stand up and fly right,’ ” Frechette said.

Luis Alfonso Hoyos, Colombia’s ambassador to the OAS, said Colombia, unlike some other countries, readily cooperates with the rights commission’s investigations and abides by its rulings and those of a sister organization, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in Costa Rica.

Inter-American system

In the inter-American justice system, the commission’s seven members study victims’ petitions and issue voluminous reports with recommendations on cases involving serious abuses. Particularly egregious cases are taken by the rights court, which can order governments to pay damages to victims, acknowledge state collaboration in crimes or make other gestures.

Although the court and commission do not have the power to imprison guilty parties, the evidence collected by its investigators has been used in successful criminal prosecutions of perpetrators in Peru, Argentina and Chile. The public attention given to these investigations can also spur countries to investigate and prevent crimes more effectively.

Hoyos, the ambassador in Washington, said Colombia’s prosecutors, for instance, have vigorously investigated the killings of union activists by right-wing death squads, cases particularly troubling to the commission. Colombian prosecutors in the past eight years have won convictions against 373 people, the government said, a dramatic improvement over the situation in the 1990s.
“We acknowledge that much needs to be done,” Hoyos said, “but the advances are indisputable.”

1,055 Colombian cases

Investigators from the rights commission examine cases from OAS member states, including the United States, whose operation of a detention center for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been condemned.

The most complaints, 1,400, have come from Peru. Mexico’s offensive against drug cartels has generated numerous cases. And in Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez’s carefully calibrated repression of opponents is under increasingly close scrutiny.

But Washington’s closest ally in the region, Colombia, has been the source of the most serious cases of abuse before the commission, investigators familiar with the cases said. In all, the commission is evaluating 1,055 cases. Dozens of the cases of serious violations took place during Uribe’s administration.

In the court’s latest ruling on Colombia, the state was ordered to apologize publicly to Cepeda’s family, build a monument in his honor and fund a university scholarship in his name.

Ivan Cepeda, the senator’s son, welcomed the verdict but said he hoped that it would also spur more resources to improve criminal investigations of rights-related crimes.

“If there were justice in Colombia,” he said, “you wouldn’t have to go the inter-American system of justice.”